Assault on Privacy: UK Contact Tracing App Data to be Stored on Government Servers

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The British government has announced that it will adopt a centralised approach to its planned contract tracing app, meaning that user data will be stored in government servers, sparking fears that the program could infringe upon privacy rights.

On Tuesday, the CEO of NHSX (the technology arm of the National Health Service), Mathe Gould told MPs that the United Kindom would be storing the data collected from the app on government servers, rather than taking the decentralised approach advocated by Apple and Google.

Gould said that the app should be released to the public in the next “two to three weeks”, with testing set to begin next week. Mr Gould said that the app will have “a measure of centralisation” as alerts will be sent out from NHS computers rather than from other phones in the area automatically triggering an alert.

“We don’t believe that’s a privacy endangering step,” Mr Gould said according to Sky News.

NHSX believes a centralised system will provide the government with more information on how the Chinese coronavirus is spreading, therefore enabling health officials to quickly update the app.

“One of the advantages is that it’s easier to audit the system and adapt it more quickly as scientific evidence accumulates,” Prof Christophe Fraser, an epidemiologist advising NHSX, told the BBC.

“The principal aim is to give notifications to people who are most at risk of having got infected, and not to people who are much lower risk,” he said, adding: “It’s probably easier to do that with a centralised system.”

In contrast to the UK, the European countries of Germany, Switzerland, Estonia, and Austria, as well as the Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) programme, have all adopted a decentralised approach to contact tracing in order to preserve privacy.

France remains the only major European power besides Britain currently pursuing a centralised government approach to tracking coronavirus patients. However, a group of tech and security experts within the country have penned an open letter, detailing the possible privacy concerns that a centralised approach brings with it.

Last month, a group of “responsible technologists” in the UK wrote to the head of NHSX and to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, warning that “location and contact tracking technology could be used as a means of social control”.

There are also concerns that the NSHX app will cause battery life issues in smartphones, as the app will constantly refresh in the background when a phone comes in contact with another phone running the program.

“If this is the case, take up of the app will be poor, and the project will not work very well. Australia, also using centralised matching, are having to constantly pester users via screen notifications when the app switches off,” said the privacy watchdog Open Rights Group.

“Battery life will be affected, and users will end up with screens unlocked, increasing security risks,” the group added.

Follow Kurt on Twitter at @KurtZindulka


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